Higher education is challenge for students with ADHD

Entering college just out of high school, leaving behind a structured life of school, family and friends, can be tough for any young adult, but for those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, the challenges can be compounded.

For years parents and teachers have helped them stay on task, and now it is suddenly time to venture out on their own. But no matter what degree of independence these fledgling college students are embracing — living at home while going to a local school or attending college in another state — there are ways to make the transition easier.

For students it means being prepared for what lies ahead and advocating for themselves after years of having parents mostly fill that role. At the same time, parents need to know when to step in and, perhaps even more important , when to step back, according to local experts.

Bradley Gruner, director of the Disability Resource Center at the College of Southern Nevada and a pediatric neuropsychologist, notes that ADHD affects the frontal lobe of the brain where “executive functioning lives,” such as the ability to stay organized, keep track of classes, remember schedules and switch smoothly from task to task.

It also can carry the symptom of being distracted to the point that the surrounding environment has more control over an individual’s attention than the student does. He compares it to having a kind of “hunter’s brain,” wired to be hyper aware of the surroundings or “every little snapped twig.”

Although each student with ADHD carries the different symptoms to varying degrees, for some, the college environment can truly be a challenge. It can mean maintaining focus during classes that can be two to three hours long, taking tests in crowded lecture halls, not to mention independently trying to stay on task with studies and long-term projects.

In high school, it was the school district’s job to adjust to their educational needs. Public school districts are required to ensure that students with learning disabilities are found, regularly tested and receive the accommodations they need through a specific educational plan that can sometimes mean adjusting the curriculum.

This all changes in college. Although accommodations are available, it’s the responsibility of the student to seek them out by contacting the school’s disability resource center and requesting those services, according to Jamie Davidson, University of Nevada, Las Vegas associate vice president for student wellness. Also, colleges are not required to modify any of the course requirements for learning-disabled students, Davidson said.

Both of these differences can take some students by surprise.

“That’s kind of a recurring theme, we see that students and their parents assume it’s going to be the same and it’s different. Not that we’re not very supportive here at UNLV, but it is different, and they just have to be more responsible for themselves. And for some students that’s a challenge,” he said.

The good news is that colleges are required by federal disabilities standards to provide what are considered reasonable accommodations. These can include allowing students with ADHD to record lectures, hire notetakers, take tests in quiet locations without distractions or even leave a lecture for occasional breaks to take a walk, he said.

Davidson recommends that students meet with the disability resources staff and apply for accommodations “sooner rather than later” so they can have a plan in place at the beginning of the semester. They can even begin the school year without using the agreed-upon accommodations but change their minds later if they decide they need the additional services , he said.

Of course, resource centers also can be a great support in other ways, linking students with tutoring services, support groups, counseling and student health services, and student organizations, Davidson said.

“One of the amazing things about UNLV is just the extent of support services that we have available. It’s just mind-boggling,” Davidson said.

The other issue is to be prepared. Experts suggest that parents encourage their children at least by high school, preferably younger, to start developing skills that will lead them to be more independent. Teach them to do their own laundry, schedule and keep appointments, work with them on learning how to manage money. In the long run, the idea is to let them do the jobs that, in the past, have been handled by the adults in their lives, they say.

Nicole Ann Cavenagh, a licensed clinical psychologist and clinical director of the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities at Touro University Nevada, noted that this kind of autonomy can start to be nurtured even when they are young children through specific behavioral strategies that focus on life skills.

The key is to find what works for them individually and, if necessary, seek the advice of experts such as psychologists who are trained in the treatment of ADHD, she said. In the long run, whether it is color-coding their school books and binders based on subject or being able to get themselves up in the morning, it will help set up a pattern for success and build self-esteem, she said.

“People with ADHD oftentimes just need some support and help in finding what are those unique organizational strategies, whether that’s a to-do list, whether that is study reminders on your cellular phone, whether that is using an old-fashioned pen-and-paper planner,” Cavenagh said.

It is also a good idea for students to attend college fairs and speak to representatives from the various campuses, ask about the services that are available and the curriculum, said Regina Hobbs, executive director of Crescent Academy, a behavioral health and training agency that helps those who have neurodevelopment disorders.

They can also establish a kind of mentoring relationship with someone in the community who is involved in a career they may be interested in and talk to them about their college experience, she said. Hobbs recommends that students also attend freshman-orientation classes and, if possible, register for school early to get started on the necessary placement exams and begin working with the disabilities resource center on any accommodations they might need.

One of the most difficult issues is how much breathing room parents should give their children who have started college, a time when most are taking that first step toward adult independence. As Hobbs points out, once a student is 18 years old, he or she is considered an adult and parents don’t have the rights they had before.

This can be a tough transition for the family to make, she said.

“They can’t call the school or talk to the professor and say, ‘How is my child doing?’ The rights are pretty much eliminated once that child enters the college system as an adult,” Hobbs said.

Every child is different; some will have an easier time than others making the adjustment. What college administrators and specialists advise is taking a kind of middle-ground approach — offering support and staying involved to a certain extent, particularly if the student seems to be really struggling with the pressures of college. Parents can help the students set goals, for example, but should not try to manage their life or prevent every mistake. It is also vital to keep the lines of communication open, the said.

One important role of parents, in fact, is simply “planting the seed” that college is a goal their children can and should aspire to, and helping them to continue to believe in themselves and keep their expectations high, said Robin Kincaid, training services director for Nevada PEP, or Parents Encouraging Parents, which provides services and training to families who have children with disabilities.

“I think a lot of it is believing, it’s continuing to discuss the value of college, and starting really early in those discussions,” she said.

Here are some more issues that students may want to look at before setting off for college:

nu2002Medications — If someone is going to school away from home, it is a good idea to have a physician to touch base with, either through the school or in the community, who can monitor any medications. Sometimes medications have to be tweaked as students make the adjustment to college.

Also, it is a good idea for students not to openly share the fact that they are on medication because college classmates may pressure them to share it.

“We have found that there are many statistics out there that show when those medications are known to other students, they’re the prince of the party,” Hobbs said

nu2002Class load — The opinion is mixed on whether a student with ADHD should take a full load of classes in the beginning or “dip their toe in” by just taking a class or two. Some experts think a full-time schedule can help keep a student focused and engaged, but others think it can be too overwhelming. In the end, most pointed out that it all depends on the individual student and what works best for them.

nu2002Help in the community — Locally, there are programs to help ADHD students prepare for college. The Clark County School District offers the YES, or Your Educational Success, program that places high school students in a college course on the CSN campus. The course focuses on issues such as study strategies and time management, while at the same time giving students a glimpse of college life.

Crescent Academy offers life-skills training and college transition programs, and Nevada PEP has college-preparation classes throughout the year. The next one, “You Can Do It!” is Feb. 20 from 6 to 8 p.m.

The class is free and includes a book and handouts with information aimed at helping families and students navigate the college experience. More information can be found at or by calling 388-8899.

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